Maria Sharapova learned on Tuesday night she has no chance of playing in the French Open, which she has won twice and had at least slim ambitions of winning again. And defeat in Rome two hours after being denied a wildcard into Roland Garros means she will have to rely on the kindness of friends if she is to play at Wimbledon next month.
Sharapova knew she had to reach at least the semi-finals of the Italian Open to return by entry to the scene of her first major triumph, the 2004 Wimbledon final against Serena Williams, the supreme American who has tormented her on court ever since but is absent awaiting the arrival of her first child.
Two hours after taking the hammer-blow from Paris, Sharapova limped off a floodlit Campo Centrale, this tournament’s cavernous centrepiece, with a thigh strain when a break up in the third set of her second-round match against the 35-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.
Sharapova, who had left court for treatment after the second set, looked be taking control again at 4-6, 6-3, 2-1 when she swished airily at a ball behind the baseline, missed, reached for her strapped left thigh and quietly nodded her submission. There was a good smattering of sympathetic applause as she left, but she had bigger troubles to contemplate.
Sharapova had already secured a place in the qualifying tournament for Wimbledon by dipping back under 200 in the world rankings on Monday with a convincing win over the American Christina McHale; that at least keeps one door slightly ajar as she continues the early stages of her comeback from a 15-month suspension for failing a drugs test at the 2016 Australian Open.
However, while she might hold out hopes that the All England Club committee headed by Tim Henman will yet grant her a wildcard for the main draw, those odds dwindled when the relatively new president of the French TennisFederation, Bernard Giudicelli, surprised nearly everyone in the game with a firm “Non!” to her hopes of a free ride into the second slam of the year. Wimbledon will not want to look out of step with the French.
Many people in the game imagined after the not altogether surprising withdrawal of Roger Federer that Sharapova’s chances of a wildcard in Paris had improved. Then, just half an hour before she walked on to the showpiece court in Rome with Lucic-Baroni, Giudicelli did what few people expected him to.
Choosing not to go down the line followed by the organisers of the Stuttgart tournament last month, Guidicelli said via Facebook Live: “There can be a wildcard for the return from injuries; there cannot be a wildcard for the return from doping. I’m very sorry for Maria, very sorry for her fans. They might be very disappointed, she might be very disappointed, but it’s my responsibility, my mission, to protect the high standards of the game played without any doubt on the result.”
Sharapova should leave Rome ranked around 175. The cut-off for the main draw at Wimbledon last year was 109, and she knew she had to reach the semi-finals here to get that low. Now she is at the mercy of her admirers.
Even her friend, the former world No1 Novak Djokovic, was circumspect about her dilemma. Talking after a solid two-sets win over Britain’s Aljaz Bedene, he said: “Whoever runs the French Open is in charge of the French Open, and they can make a decision that they think is the most appropriate. I can’t say more than that.” He added: “It must be tough for her, but it’s the way it is. And, in some tournaments, she’s going to get that help with wildcards and invitations; some not. Unfortunately, it’s a grand slam, which is for sure for her a big one. But it is what it is.
“She has to go through a tougher way back. But I saw a little bit of her matches. She has been playing well. So, after being absent from the Tour for a long time, she’s going to be patient, at least as much as she can, to slowly build her rankings and get back to where she has the quality to be.”(Kevin Mitchell)
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